Turning fandom into a lifestyle
A biography of the original "fanboy" will be screened during the Drexel's annual sci-fi film fest
By Richard Ades
This weekend, the Drexel Theatre will once again host the Ohio 24-Hour Science Fiction Marathon, its annual tribute to Tribbles, Wookies and tales set in a world not quite our own.
Along with the usual assortment of old classics and new features, the festival will include a documentary that’s appropriate for the expected crowd of sci-fi fans, as it’s about the man known as the greatest fan of all time. In fact, he may have been the original “fanboy,” said TV writer Ian Johnston, one of the two Canadians who made the flick.
Famous Monster: Forrest J Ackerman is about the late “Forry” Ackerman, a journalist and literary agent who took his favorite film genre so seriously that in 1939 he became the first known person to show up for a sci-fi convention in costume.
“You can’t forget about that significance—’39, for God’s sake,” said Johnston.
As a result, said Michael MacDonald, the film’s director and producer, the documentary is not only about Ackerman but about the celluloid-worshiping lifestyle he helped to popularize.
“You can’t separate the two,” MacDonald said. “Through Forry, we celebrate fandom.”
Speaking on the phone Monday from Toronto and Halifax, respectively, Johnston and MacDonald explained how two Canadians came to make a film about the man whose devotion to science fiction is credited with helping to turn it into a mainstream phenomenon.
He’s the guy, in fact, who turned science fiction into sci-fi, reportedly coining the nickname back in 1953.
“I first met Forry back in the early ’90s,” said Johnston, who was writing for the fan magazines Fangoria and Cinefantastique at the time.
Ackerman had served as editor of his own fan magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmdom, from 1958 to ’82, and he remained active in the sci-fi and horror fields into the ’90s. Johnston said Ackerman organized two “Famous Monster” conventions, in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. In addition, he owned a vast collection of film memorabilia that he gladly showed to anybody who dropped by the “Ackermansion,” his LA home.
In 2005, when MacDonald was making a movie about sci-fi cover art, Johnston suggested that he talk to Ackerman. However, Johnston had been out of touch with Ackerman and wasn’t even sure he was still alive. When MacDonald not only talked to Ackerman but included footage of him in his film, Johnston decided it was time to make a movie specifically about the legendary fan, who was then in his late 80s.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to go down and film this guy quick,’” said Johnston, who signed on as the project’s writer and interviewer. “Not to be crass or anything like that, but after you’re in your 80s, all bets are off.”
The resulting 48-minute documentary includes interviews with Ackerman and with some of the many filmmakers and other celebs who’ve been inspired by him through the years, including Roger Corman, Ray Bradbury, John Landis and Joe Dante.
It also includes reminiscences about people who are no longer around to speak for themselves, such as legendarily bad filmmaker Ed Wood, for whom Ackerman served as an agent. Johnston said Ackerman’s support of Wood had nothing to do with the quality of his work.
“He accepted anybody, almost, as an agent,” said Johnston. “He was very disparaging of Ed Wood.”'
“He said Ed Wood was a drunken voice on the other end of the phone at 2 o’clock in the morning,” added MacDonald.
Even so, Ackerman not only worked with Wood but remained his friend for years.
“Forry was always for the underdog,” said MacDonald.
He noted that Ackerman also befriended Bela Lugosi, the one-time Dracula who died partway through Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, often cited as the worst film of all time. MacDonald said Ackerman and his wife once helped the down-and-out actor by taking him to get his shoes fixed.
“That’s so cool,” Johnston said. “Like, who fixes people’s shoes?”
Of course, Ackerman himself is the main character in MacDonald and Johnston’s film. They succeeded in interviewing him and even filming his 90th birthday, held at a Los Angeles eatery called House of Pies.
The world’s foremost authority on science fiction was not above delving into fiction when talking about himself, they admitted. One example was a story he liked to tell of an H.G. Wells book that supposedly was mailed to him during World War II, but which went down with a ship that was sunk by a German submarine. The book eventually rose to the surface, and he finally received it.
Later, however, Ackerman revealed that the story wasn’t true. Nor could it have been, as the book wasn’t published until five years after the war ended.
“There was a lot of crap around that you’re not really sure about,” said Johnston. “Like Clark, for God’s sake,” he added, referring to the middle name sometimes ascribed to Ackerman.
So why did Ackerman use the middle initial J, which was never followed by a period?
“I always got the impression that he did it ’cause that looked cooler or something,” Johnston said.
Ackerman died Dec. 4, proving that Johnston had been right to turn his film biography into a rush job. The movie—which already had been seen on Canadian TV and at a 2008 film festival in Huntington Beach, Calif.—was screened at a tribute gathering held March 8 at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre. Also on the bill was The Time Travelers, a 1964 film in which Ackerman made a brief appearance.
The older flick is again on the schedule for this weekend’s Drexel film festival, following the third public showing of Famous Monster. “We booked Time Travelers specifically because it has a cameo appearance by Forrest Ackerman in it,” said Drexel owner Jeff Frank, “We thought the audience would get a real kick out of seeing it.”
A DVD of the Ackerman biography went on sale Monday.
INFO: The 26th annual Ohio 24-Hour Science Fiction Film Marathon runs from noon Saturday to noon Sunday at the Drexel Theatre, 2254 E. Main St. Tickets are $33 in advance, $36 at the door. A “halfathon” featuring six films begins at midnight Saturday; tickets are $17 in advance, $20 at the door. 614-231-1050, scifimarathon.com or drexel.net.
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